Friday, August 28, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic: Lesson 3

Welcome to So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic, a ten-part instructional feature that will provide you with all the tips and tricks you need to become a real life music reviewer. As a matter of process, I've taken these lessons from exhaustive research into printed music reviews in Entertainment Weekly, Q, The New Yorker, Musician, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Additionally, I've looked into the uberhip perspective of Pitchfork.com. I also read many pieces by the godfather of music reviewing, Lester Bangs. And finally, I have not shied away from an examination of my own work here on 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds.

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Lesson 3: Birth Of the Cool

We spent Lesson 2 discussing the value of comparing and alluding to other artists in your reviews. We discussed making references that are obscure and specific, and the importance of withholding explanations for said references. But there's something more, a vital piece of comparing and alluding that every reviewer needs to know. Here it is. Are you ready?

Some artists are inherently cool. Others are not.

Thus, the basic premise is simplicity itself. When you want to make a positive comparison or allusion, you use a cool artist. When you want to denigrate the album or artist you're writing about, you compare them to someone uncool.

The complexity of this lesson lies in two questions you might be asking yourself.

1) How do I know who's cool and who's uncool?
There is no definitive list of cool and uncool artists. If you find yourself in need of such a list I'm sorry to say that it doesn't exactly bode well for your music reviewing future. HOWEVER, the purpose of So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Critic is to instruct, so I'll begrudgingly forgive you for your lack of knowledge. Here's a general rule of thumb. If a band is commercially successful and loved by teenagers and people who shop at Wal-Mart regularly, then they're not cool. If your mom likes them, they're uncool. If people who are members of fraternities and sororities like a band, they're uncool. If you are the first one in your inner circle to "discover" an artist, they're cool. If the band was considered cool when you were a teenager or in your twenties, they'll always be cool. If the college radio station plays the band, they're cool. There's a little bit more to it, as we'll see, but that gives you someplace to start.

2) Who decides who's cool and uncool anyway?
Ah, this question is more like it. It shows an insightful mind. And I think you'll like the answer: You do. Sure, you inherit pre-existing lists, but ultimately, you, the music critic, have the power to deem a new artist cool or uncool, to turn an uncool musician cool, or to create a backlash against a previously-cool artist. This is a great power, and you must use it responsibly.

Here's how:

Most music critics use the existing cool/uncool lists in an almost offhand way. Often they will make a comparison or allusion to an artist or album and not even explain whether they intended it to be positive or negative. But it's there in the subtext, relying on the reader's assumed knowledge of who's cool and who's not. For example, look at this bit of work from Ann Powers' 2001 review of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind in Spin:
"After Pop, 1997's uncomfortable tip-toe into techno, they've realized that the rash pursuit of the moment only works for Madonna. Self-respect demands U2 ignore Kid Rock and eliminate the need for Creed."
Now we're meant to understand that Madonna is cool and Kid Rock and Creed are not. Powers gave us some clues to that conclusion, though we're not told specifically why Kid Rock and Creed are uncool. We're just meant to know it intuitively. Plus she got some rhyming in there, which is always good.

Let's look at a more obtuse (and thus superior) example, courtesy of the folks at Pitchfork.com. In his 2000 review of Steely Dan's Grammy-winning Two Against Nature album Brent DiCrescenzo compares the record to a "Daniel Lanois-produced collaboration between the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny G." The scathing nature of the review (we'll actually look at it in more detail in Lesson 4) alerts the reader that Daniel Lanois, DMB, and Kenny G (and Steely Dan, for that matter) are all obviously uncool, so no further explanation is needed.

BUT, you may ask, what if the reader thinks that Kid Rock's Cowboy and Creed's Arms Wide Open are pretty good songs? What if he or she loved the Dave Matthews Band's Under the Table and Dreaming album? What if he or she thinks that Lanois did a pretty darn good production job on Peter Gabriel's So, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, U2's Achtung Baby, the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon, and Ron Sexsmith's debut? Won't that reader be confused and not quite understand the point you're trying to make? Maybe, but as the writer you must divorce yourself of that responsibility. If the reader is ignorant or has bad taste, it's not your fault.

So we touched on what's uncool. But what about the flip side? Well, here are some artists that you could never go wrong with using as a measuring stick for coolness: Neil Young, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, all pre-1970 jazz musicians, Public Image Ltd., Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, all rappers (except isolated white ones and, ironically, Coolio), Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Sly and the Family Stone, all blues artists, Led Zeppelin, Spoon, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Big Star, all Motown artists, Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Cocteau Twins, Wilco, and all pre-1970 country artists. Even if you have never heard a note by an artist on this list, you can still drop their name and appear in the know.

But again, do NOT take this list as gospel. The music critiquing business is a mercurial one, and that brings us to your power as a critic. If you boldly declare a new artist to be cool (usually by comparing them to other cool artists), most other critics will follow suit, because they'll assume you know something they don't. Likewise, you'll want to follow others' leads from time to time when you don't feel like creating your own opinion, or are afraid of looking stupid.

There also comes a time in every critic's life where she uses her power to create a backlash against a cool artist, effectively making them uncool. This power should be used with great discretion, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't sort of fun. And you'd be surprised at the collective unconscious of pop music critics. Once a backlash starts, it takes hold quickly. Let's take the example of R.E.M. When they started as an obtuse indie band they were immediately cool because they were obtuse and indie. 'Round about their fifth album, Document, the band started to become less obtuse and had a top 10 hit, The One I Love. This automatically made them less cool. Then they signed with a major label and had two more hits (Orange Crush and Stand), and they got even less cool. When Out of Time came out, the wild success of Losing My Religion, and the inclusion of an ultra-poppy tune Shiny Happy People, signaled that it was time for a critical backlash. This process, you see, has nothing to do with the quality of the work, only with the reception or the imagined intention. The band made it through the next album, Automatic For the People, with their cool mostly intact, but it was all used up from there on.

We'll cover this more in lesson 6, but you might look to Pitchfork reviewer Duane Ambroz for guidance here. In his review of R.E.M.'s Up, he puts forth a theory that states that every long-lasting musician goes through three stages: Vital, Catch-Up, and Old Fart. The gist of the theory is that all artists hit a wall wherein their creativity is all but gone. Ambroz claims it happened to R.E.M. after 1991's Automatic for the People (see?).

On the flip side, you are allowed to bestow retroactive cool. This involves taking a commercially successful-but-uncool band from the past and elevating them to cool status. This has happened with groups like ABBA and the Carpenters. This also works for forgotten bands who few people ever really cared about in the first place. Simply label them "influential" and your work is done.

Some artists reach a point where you might be afraid to challenge their coolness. Trust this instinct. Ask any wolf; it doesn't go well when you try to stray from the pack. Many of the artists listed above fit this category, and even though most of them have done several uncool things in their careers, they remain unscathed. Why? Because even though you, as a critic, may recognize that an artist has done something not-so-cool, you does not want to be the one who reveals that you don't get it. It's easier to laud the artist for "challenging the mainstream" or "following their muse" or being an "iconoclast." For example, if Neil Young releases an album of traditional Persian yodeling, it's a "visionary move." If a former member of the Backstreet Boys does it, it's fodder for derisive jeering (this is just a hypothetical, by the way, don't waste your time looking for either album).

As always, there are those who break the rules, with disastrous results. Ever the rebel, Lester Bangs often attempted to challenge the critic culture of cool. Consider his novel-length screed "Bob Dylan's Dalliance with Mafia Chic: He Ain't No Delinquent, He's Misunderstood" (March 1976, Village Voice). Most critics worship at Bob's feet, and justifiably so. Normally, Bangs could be counted among this number, but two songs on Dylan's '76 album Desire got under Lester's skin, and not in a Sinatra sort of way.

Bangs first posits that Hurricane (the true story of imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter) is not the result of impassioned feelings about race and injustice, but instead just something controversial Dylan wrote about to make himself appear socially relevant. He claims the same thing about George Jackson, a '72 single release about a communist Black Panther who died in prison in 1971. Check out this quote: "Dylan doesn't give a damn about Rubin Carter, and if he spent more than 10 minutes actually working on the composition of George Jackson then Bryan Ferry is a member of the Eagles." (Even while doing something wrong, Bangs does something right. Check out the savvy use of the cool/uncool dynamic in that analogy).

Bangs spends the rest of the article systematically demolishing Dylan's hypocritically celebratory Joey, an 11-minute paean to New York mobster Joey Gallo. The song hails Gallo as a folk hero, whereas in real life he was misogynistic, racist and murderous. Bangs appears to have done significant research into Gallo's life, and includes relevant quotes from his research and Dylan's song. But his whole thesis is terribly flawed for one simple reason: You don't question greatness, you make apologies for it.

Bangs also wrote a piece in the September 1973 issue of Creem praising Anne Murray's Danny's Song album song-by-song and calling her "the real thing." Yes, Anne Murray, the mom-approved Canadian light rock songstress. So, we know he can't be fully trusted.

You, however, can trust that I'll be back next week with Lesson 4: Viva Hate. Until then, stay, well, you know.

5 comments:

Richard said...

Lester Bangs is right about Joey--it's a terrible song. The Dylan fans I know mock it lovingly.

Speaking of Dylan, was that the scariest picture you could find? He doesn't quite look like the crypt-keeper.

Paul Allen said...

I agree that there are scarier pictures of Dylan, but this one had a certain something. Is it frosted bangs, the tea kettle cozy cap, the Vincent Price moustache, or the leering look? I don't know.

Alex said...

Ah... but what about popular and hideously uncool artists who undergo a retro "cool renaissance" years later (like the Carpenters or the Monkees)?

Or the many cases where someone tries to use their own cool to bring cool to their heroes and inspirations (e.g., the Rolling Stones for Muddy Waters, Tom Petty -- back when he was cool -- for Del Shannon)?

I'm just hoping Jack White doesn't decide it's his mission in life to bring street cred to the Bay City Rollers.

Anonymous said...

And "Hurricane" was just as painfully,grossly inaccurate as "Joey", but it's rarely pointed out, because to do so would be Politically Incorrect,as it was about a Black thug.

Paul Allen said...

Regarding the previous comment: I was going to trash it, but realized that people who decry political correctness are usually just people who want to spout bigotry without being called on it.